"The idea of art as an expensive hunk of well-regulated area, both logical and magical," wrote film critic Manny Farber in his essay, "White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art," "sits heavily over the talent of every modern painter." It sits even more heavily over the movies, which, as Farber argued in 1962, seem to get more puffed-up and pleased with themselves as "ever more desperate, ever more coordinated" studios do their best to embalm them in taste, importance and anxiously brokered compromise.
Michael Winterbottom's new film, "Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story," which I saw at the Toronto Film Festival in September and immediately developed a giddy crush on, reminded me of Farber's description of "termite art," or art that aims at a "bug-like immersion in a small area without point or aim ... concentration on nailing down one moment without glamorizing it ... and forgetting this accomplishment as soon as it has passed ... giving the feeling that all is expendable, that it can be chopped up and flung down in a different arrangement without ruin."
FOR THE RECORD:
"Tristram Shandy" —The review of the film "Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story" in Friday's Calendar said that the novel on which the movie is based ends before the title character is born. In fact, his birth does take place in the book.
If this doesn't describe Martin Hardy's script — and, of course, the novel by Laurence Sterne, which the character of Steve Coogan (Steve Coogan), who plays Tristram Shandy in Michael Winterbottom's film-within-a-film, calls "the first postmodern novel, written before there was any modernism to be post about" — nothing does. "Tristram Shandy" is a film about the difficulty of making a film based on a book about the difficulty of writing a book. But mostly, it's a bawdy, frazzled rout through the boundaries of stories, story telling, movies and movie making, breaking down celebrity, and the toadying and the viciousness it inspires. The movie's main purpose, if it has one, is to question its purpose — which makes it not only fun and refreshingly unassuming, but the perfect antidote to all the stately, straight-faced, "upscale" movie product floating down the red carpet these days like barges down the Yangtze River.
Of course, describing the movie highlights some of the difficulties the fictional Tristram and the fictional Winterbottom encountered in telling it: Namely, where to begin? We first see Coogan and Rob Brydon in makeup, arguing over whether Brydon's part is a "co-lead" or a supporting role. Coogan plays the title character, which makes him, ostensibly, the star of the picture, as his character keeps trying to reassure himself, the audience and his costar Brydon. Brydon plays himself as well as Tristram's Uncle Toby in the film within the film, an important role that stokes all of Coogan's leading-man insecurities. (Not that he's not in almost every scene, as he also plays Tristram's father, Walter.)
But then, the novel goes on for more than 500 pages, ending before the "author" and title character is even born, and some of his best moments occur in utero.
Like Tristram's attempts to tell his story, the process of making the film is maddeningly distracting and digressive. Over the course of the production, it gets shot, re-shot, rethought, rewritten and partially recast before it's finally screened in front of a smattering of disgruntled actors, consultants and producers. The result frustrates everyone from the war re-enactment buffs who consulted on the battle scenes, to the American star (Gillian Anderson, playing herself), who gets hauled in at the last minute for a romantic subplot.
What's the point? The answer escapes Winterbottom (the character) as well. "Why do we want to spend a year of our lives making this film?" he asks his core crew, frustrated with the demands and frustrations of everyone around him. "Because it's funny," someone replies.
"Is that all?"
"Is that not enough?"
The question more or less answers itself. But there's more to it than that. As an academic consulted on the project puts it, "Its theme is a very simple one: Life is chaotic. It's amorphous. No matter how hard you try, you can't actually make it fit any shape. Tristram himself is trying to write his life story, but it escapes him."
So, the movie meanders between scenes of the movie being shot, and scenes of the actors, director, writer, producers, wardrobe people and others involved in the production as they squabble, flirt and drive each other crazy. Coogan feels particularly besieged by a smarmy journalist (whose magazine is politely blackmailing him in exchange for a profile), his girlfriend Jenny (Kelly MacDonald), who has traveled to visit him over the weekend with their infant son, his assistant Jennie (Naomie Harris), a film nut and Fassbinder enthusiast with a crush on him and, of course, Brydon, whose role as Uncle Toby so threatens Coogan that he demands his shoes be made higher than his costar's.
True to the spirit of the book it largely ignores (though it does manage to sneak in its famous black page in the form of a black screen), "Tristram Shandy" has no interest in glamorizing, ennobling, judging or promoting a point of view. By the same token, it politely refrains from demonizing or moralizing. In fact, the movie where the action transpires could be any workplace, or any social situation in which egos, interests and values clash and dovetail, where emotions and conflicts are heightened by financial considerations and deadline pressure. It satirizes the movie business, but it does so affectionately, mostly because the business offers such irresistible targets.
The trouble with describing a story this complex and digressive is that it's hard to keep it from sounding complicated and hard-to-follow. But for a movie about movies, it's surprisingly humanistic, cheerful and true to life. "Tristram Shandy" is far from a cynical "insider" look at the business. Its best moments are throwaways, such as the scene in which Brydon mocks Coogan's casual remark about having just received some scripts from America with a riff on Hollywood tough-guy dialogue — a string of drawled expletives, basically. Or the scene in which Jennie gets carried away on an enthusiastic rant about the battle scene in Robert Bresson's "Lancelot du Lac."
"It's actually a metaphor for life," she says, describing the moment when two knights encased in armor clobber each other with a hilarious singularity of purpose. Oblivious to the indifference of her audience, she goes on about how we are all encased in carapaces, how conflict is futile and connection impossible, as the director, star and medieval battle re-enactment enthusiast stare at her blankly, waiting for the lecture to end. Possibly like you are now. So just one more thing. Movie good.
MPAA rating: R for language and sexual content